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Sex workers seek legal cover

Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Ironic it may sound, but it is a fact that while the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, does not penalise the act of having sex in exchange for money, it criminalises everything around this transaction.

Thus, sex work as an activity is not an offence, but soliciting clients on public premises or setting up brothels is punishable with imprisonment and fine.

Consequently, sex workers are driven underground to pursue their livelihood, putting their safety at risk.

According to Kokila, a member of the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW), several of her peers have been exploited and discriminated against just because there is no law to protect them. That sex workers cannot seek legal relief compounds their problems, leaving them at the mercy of enforcement machinery like the police.

“The police are either complicit in or indifferent to this violence,” said Tripti Tandon of the Lawyers Collective, an NGO that advocates reforms in the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act.

“We are definitely looking for a change or some reforms in the present Act. It can be in any form and not necessarily by way of legalising prostitution,” Ms. Tandon said. It was important that sex workers be provided legal cover, and sex work, soliciting customers and all provisions discriminating against those in this profession and their children be done away with.

Representatives of the Lawyers Collective and the NNSW were speaking at an interaction between sex workers and the media here on Thursday. Participants who gathered from all corners of the country termed the discussion “positive and encouraging.”

“Laws stand in way”

Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Dinesh Trivedi reportedly told the sex workers that many laws, instead of helping them, stood in the way of their progress and welfare, and “such laws must change.”

The criminalisation of sex work is traumatic not just for those who are involved in it, but also for their children and family. “My mother's earnings from sex work support my education and she wants me to pursue higher studies,” said Parvati Haldar, a 16-year-old who hails from the Sonagachi ‘red-light' area in Kolkata. The children of sex workers are under the constant threat of being arrested once they turn 16, as surviving on money from sex work is a punishable offence.

Not many favour the recent observations of the Supreme Court, exhorting sex workers to give up their profession and pursue other vocations.

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